UF going for championship
Published: Monday, June 1, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, May 31, 2009 at 8:51 p.m.
OKLAHOMA CITY — To understand why Ali Gardiner was crying at the postgame press conference, you have to understand where she was coming from.
Who: No. 1 Florida vs. No. 3 Washington
Where: ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, Oklahoma City
When: 8 p.m.
Gainesville radio: AM-850
Because this was not supposed to be happening.
In the most important part of the season, she was struggling mightily. Gardiner was hitless in her last 15 at-bats and oh-for-OKC. And now it was all up to her.
“I’ve been working to try to get out of my own head all week,” she said.
Gardiner got out of her head and went out of the park. Her grand slam, two-out, opposite-field, walk-off home run gave Florida a remarkable 6-5 win over Alabama in the Women’s College World Series Sunday. The 63-3 Gators will face Washington, which beat Georgia 9-3 on Sunday night. The series will be a best-of-three finale for the national championship.
It was an emotional win for Florida and an emotional loss for rival Alabama. Gardiner wasn’t the only one shedding tears. Tide coach Patrick Murphy sniffled through his press conference and losing pitcher Kelsi Dunne, who has now given up four grand slams to the Gators in two years, gave terse one-word answers for the most part after the game.
But the biggest tears came from Gardiner, a senior leader on the team who had been dropped to sixth in the lineup. The tears were triggered by her parents.
“I’ve never seen either of my parents cry in my whole life,” Gardiner said, wiping away tears. “My dad especially, who worked with me my whole life. He doesn’t show much emotion. And the last couple of days, we haven’t talked much.”
Florida appeared heading for a late-night elimination game going to the bottom of the seventh. A rare bad inning for pitcher Stacey Nelson had given the Tide a 5-2 lead. Nelson had been staked to a 2-1 lead on a Kelsey Bruder two-run homer in the fourth and Nelson looked strong at the start of the fifth. She was one pitch away from striking out the side when Brittany Rogers beat out a grounder, stole second and scored on Lauren Parker’s single. It was the first earned run allowed by Nelson in the last 39 innings.
And there were more to come. Nelson gave up four runs in the inning, the most she has allowed this year.
“Scoring that many runs against Stacey is a feat in itself,” Florida coach Tim Walton said. “She didn’t have her best stuff, but Alabama always does well against her.”
Walton turned to Stepanie Brombacher to start the sixth and give Nelson some rest for the second game that appeared imminent. Brombacher held Alabama scoreless thanks to a diving catch in right by Bruder in the top of the seventh.
“The only thing going through my mind is that I was diving towards the line which is exactly what you are not supposed to do,” Bruder said. “I knew I had better catch it or keep it in front of me.”
That set the stage for Gardiner’s heroics. Aja Paculba walked, Francesca Enea singled and Megan Bush worked a two-out walk.
Gardiner lifted a 2-1 pitch to left and threw down her bat thinking it was a deep fly out.
“I didn’t think it was out,” she said. “I thought she was going to catch it against the fence.”
But the wind blowing to left carried the ball well over the outstretched glove of left fielder Whitney Larsen and bedlam ensued. Walton began jumping up and down like he had just won the lottery. Gardiner’s teammates sprinted to the plate to welcome her. Six earrings were lost in the dogpile.
“I was afraid I was going to look like a pirate on ESPN,” Gardiner said. “I kept my helmet on because my hair looked so bad.”
The grand slam was Florida’s 12th of the season but the first for Gardiner in her Gator career.
“I have been coaching softball for 11 years and I’ve never seen a team with so much determination and fight,” Walton said. “Ali was struggling more than anybody knows.”
Walton never doubted the ball would clear the fence.
“I put my arm in the air right away,” he said. “The way the wind was blowing, I knew it was gone right away.”
The win was Florida’s 28th straight and fourth in five games against Alabama, which made it to Sunday by scoring 20 runs in two games Saturday. But one out away from forcing an elimination game with the Gators, Gardiner got in the way.
“I’m so glad after a whole year of my teammates picking me up,” Gardiner said, “I could pick them up.”
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